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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Savoy Theatre  December 2016 - January 2019

A genuine hit and crowd-pleaser, this very belated London premiere of a 1981 Broadway musical is a triumph of its direction and choreography, along with two brilliant central performances, over material that might on its own have been unpromising. 

It is a reminder that a successful musical is more than its book and songs, and that big production values and inventive staging aren't just add-ons, but integral parts of the genre. 

To get the show's limits out of the way first with the reminder that they are largely overcome Tom Eyen's book is openly 'inspired by' the real-life singing superstars The Supremes, and thus has little that is original or surprising. 

A trio of African-American girl singers start as back-up for a black star, but an ambitious manager makes them an act on their own and then reshapes them for greatest crossover appeal to mainstream (i.e., white) audiences. 

What was an equal trio becomes lead singer star and her two back-ups, the fat girl is fired because she doesn't fit the new image, they are glammed up and their repertoire moved from a Motown sound to more anodyne pop, and they do eventually reach the top, though at various personal costs. 

The weakest part of the show, the story line never quite escapes its generic made-for-TV movie feel. 

At least half of the show's songs (music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Tom Eyen) are done as performances by the girls at various stages in their careers and by others. 

These are, of necessity, pastiches, very good imitations of the Motown sound (with very good imitations of the signature Motown choreography and performance style), very good imitations of bland 1970s pop, even a very good imitation of early disco. 

And, of necessity, they are all very effective in evoking the styles they're modelled on, but unoriginal and unmemorable in themselves. 

The book songs, those that take place 'offstage', are a mixed bag, ranging from the show-stopping And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going and the powerful girls'-reunion dramatic climax Listen down to very brief snippets of melody carrying the plot forward a bit. 

Nothing I've mentioned so far is a crippling flaw, but the musical could not have the emotional and entertainment power it has with only these limited materials. What makes this Dreamgirls work is the constantly fluid and forward-moving direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw. 

Every musical number, those supposedly onstage and those supposedly off, is accompanied by movement, and the transitions in and out of dialogue scenes are seamless. 

Indeed, with no spoken scenes seeming to last more than a minute or two, the show has the feel of being sung-through and danced-through even if it isn't. 

And the musical staging is good. Aside from the evocations of various period styles, there are the energy-filled performances of the James-Brown-style performer the girls begin by backing and some self-contained dance sequences, notably a version of Steppin' To The Bad Side that begins as a songwriter's dream and morphs into a full-size production number. 

The star-is-born role in this show has always been the rejected fat girl, who gets to close Act One with the unfollowable And I Am Telling You. 

With invaluable assistance by the sound engineer Amber Riley shakes the rafters with her big moment, and also (without needing any assistance) finds and delivers all the dramatic power of this and her other songs.

(Incidentally, am I the only one to ever have noticed that, after stopping the show by declaring she's not going, the character goes, and doesn't re-appear until the end?)

Liisi LaFontaine does full justice to the Diana Ross-ish figure, not only singing beautifully but showing her develop as both performer and independent woman. Riley and LaFontaine together, in the climactic Listen, can challenge anyone in any other West End musical and walk away winners.

Joe Aaron Reid gives the manager the oily charm that makes him believable and the sincere ambition that keeps him from being despicable, and there are attractive performances by Tyrone Huntley as the resident songwriter and Adam J Bernard as the James Brown clone. 

As raw material, Dreamgirls doesn't advance the art form an inch. But as a production that enriches and makes the most of the raw material, and as a vehicle for brilliant staging and star performances, it delivers everything the big brassy Broadway musical was invented for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dreamgirls - Savoy Theatre 2016